The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a helicopter survey along the shore of Chappaquiddick and South Beach last Thursday as part of an ongoing study to determine how many aging practice munitions remain buried in the sand.
Pilot Doug Watson and navigator Marcus Watson flew a Bell helicopter rigged with geophysical instrumentation to detect metal objects; they flew just above the beach grass, which came as quite a surprise for beachgoers unaware of the project.
The aerial survey supplements a ground survey currently underway by the Army Corps as part of a remedial investigation/feasibility study at three sites used to train naval aviators during and immediately following World War II.
They include the former Cape Poge Little Neck bomb target site, the former moving target machine gun range and bomb target site at South Beach, and the former Tisbury Great Pond bomb site and gunnery range.
In 2009, in a collaborative effort with state, county, and local officials, the Army Corps conducted an emergency cleanup of rockets and practice bombs at Little Neck, South Beach, and Norton Point Beach, up to 100 feet from the shoreline. Those efforts resulted in the discovery and disposal of 127 MK-23 and MK-5 practice bombs from Little Neck and 617 aerial rocket motors, practice bombs, and warheads from Norton Point and South Beach.
None of the bombs found in the 2009 summer cleanup contained explosive material.
How big is the problem?
In this second phase, which began in December, the goal is to identify the size of the problem, not remove objects.
Contractors will first conduct a search and map objects. Once the survey is complete the Army Corps will then evaluate various remedial actions that could include digging up munitions, long-term monitoring, or doing nothing.
The fieldwork is expected to be completed by June 2011.
In recent years, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun cleaning up what are termed Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS), properties that the Department of Defense once owned or used, but no longer controls. Martha’s Vineyard is on that list.
More than 60 years ago, Navy and Army pilots regularly used Tisbury Great Pond and East Beach and an area known as Little Neck on Chappaquiddick for bombing and strafing practice. The list of munitions used at Tisbury Great Pond included 100- and 500-pound practice bombs with spotting charges, and .30 and .50 caliber bullets.
Over the years the remnants of those training missions, mostly rusted practice bombs, have continued to turn up in the marsh and on the beach, most often on areas owned or managed by The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the private conservation organization.
Most of the ordnance are practice bombs that have only a small explosive charge, but a few of the discoveries have turned out to be the real thing.
The most recent discovery of World War II era practice bombs occurred last November when some people walking the beach at Long Point noticed a large bomb in the sand at the cut in the barrier beach between the ocean and Tisbury Great Pond. Later that day, Navy explosives ordnance disposal blew up five rusted practice bombs.
As for what private citizens should do if they come upon a suspicious looking object on the beach, experts provide the following advice: “Recognize, Retreat, Report. Recognize that the item could be ordnance, retreat from the item the way you approached it, and report it to the police.”